Unique Resources in Public Libraries

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This article originally appeared in Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records, edited by Kory L. Meyerink.


Library sources are essential in the ever-expanding field of genealogy. For beginners who are just starting to research their family history and for more advanced researchers who believe they have exhausted potential sources of information, local libraries offer many sources that await discovery, and much information is hidden in basic reference sources. This chapter will introduce these sources and offer suggestions on how best to use them.

Genealogists often struggle with research problems that could be solved quickly by using library reference sources. Many researchers will have used these sources during their high school or college years. It is time to became reacquainted with them and to discover how standard reference works can help one learn more about her family’s past. This chapter focuses on the basic reference books found in most public libraries; these include encyclopedias, historical indexes, dictionaries, almanacs, directories, and many others.

How To Use a Library

Libraries can be mysterious labyrinths. Many adult library patrons feel lost and uncomfortable in a place which they haven’t used for many years. Such feelings are understandable but not insurmountable. With a little knowledge and instruction, anyone can learn to use and appreciate libraries. Reading this chapter is the first step.

The best way to learn how to use a library is to ask a librarian or library clerk. Some researchers believe that it is better not to “bother a librarian with questions. They often wander around a library, reluctant to ask questions and thus wasting valuable research time. Remember that librarians are there to help with questions, no matter how basic or unusual. Reference librarians are trained to help researchers. They and their assistants hold the keys to unlocking the many information sources that await researchers.

In a large library, it may be difficult to know which library worker approach. The reference department is the best place to begin. Once there, go to the information desk and ask for assistance. Better yet, when entering a library for the first time, ask for a tour of the library. While on tour, ask about any unique holdings or collections. Librarians are proud of their collections and their patrons’ interest.

Often, only by asking a librarian about his library’s unique holdings can one learn about them. For example, this author’s local library has a card index to the marriages and obituaries found in the Independence [Missouri] Examiner, a local newspaper. Currently, the index covers the years 1919 to 1939. It is located in a back corner of the library and is often overlooked by researchers. Unless a patron asks the librarian, “What unique indexes or sources will I find in your library?, she may not be aware of the index and will thus miss a potentially valuable source.

Library Organization

Most libraries are organized into sections or areas. Smaller libraries usually have an area for adults and another for children. Larger libraries maintain separate departments for specific subject areas, such as the periodical department for magazines and the reference department for reference books. A reference department can occupy an entire floor of a large public library or a corner in a small library.

Within a library the books are labeled as circulating or reference. Circulating books can be borrowed by library patrons and taken home to read. These books include fiction books, such as romance novels, westerns, and mysteries; they also include nonfiction books, such as car repair manuals, cookbooks, and travel books. Circulating books are usually read in their entirety for information or enjoyment.

In contrast, reference books do not circulate and are shelved in an area designated for library use only. These books provide answers to specific questions and therefore must remain in the library for use by everyone. Whether one wants to know the specific dates of the American Revolution or needs a detailed description of Quaker beliefs and practices, answers can be found in reference sources. Reference books are usually not read from cover to cover and are often published in multi-volume sets.

Reference areas contain a variety of books, microform (microfilm or microfiche) materials, and online sources (sources available through electronic databases and the Internet) selected by librarians as useful for answering questions. Reference materials are labeled with Ref or R above the catalog number to distinguish them from circulating nonfiction materials.

Cataloging Fundamentals

All library books are cataloged or classified in a particular order so that they can be easily found. Most libraries use one of two systems of classification: the Dewey Decimal System or the Library of Congress Classification System. Both systems are based on the principle of assigning a unique number and/or letter combination to each library item for shelf placement and easy retrieval. The researcher who has mastered the basic principles of the Dewey and Library of Congress systems will feel comfortable using the holdings of any library.

Dewey Decimal System

Most public libraries use the Dewey Decimal Classification System, which was developed in 1873 by Melvin Dewey for the Amherst College Library in Amherst, Massachusetts. This system classifies books within ten basic groups or classes of knowledge. Within these major classes, many subject divisions are possible. For example, the number 900 is reserved for all materials dealing with history and geography. Within the 900 class, the following divisions exist: numbers 910 through 919 are reserved for atlases and books on geography, 929.2 for family histories, and 974 through 979 for materials relating to individual states within the United States (see the facing page).

As each new book arrives in a library, a cataloger assigns a unique call number to it. That number is recorded on a three- by five-inch catalog card or in a computerized catalog database. The call number consists of the Dewey classification number and, beneath it, the Cutter number or symbol that represents the author. Charles Ammi Cutter, librarian of the Boston Anthenaeum Library, invented the Cutter number system in 1893. A Cutter number is composed of the first one or two letters of an author’s surname followed by a number assigned to that individual author. Often a lowercase letter follows the Cutter number. That letter shows that the author has written several books by referring to the first word of each book title. Below is an example of a complete call number.

296.78 (classification number)
H15n (Cutter number)

Books are arranged on library shelves in numerical order according to the Dewey number. Library shelves are arranged in vertical sections that are individual numbering sections. Thus, when looking for a book by its call number, one is searching from left to right and from top to bottom within each shelf section. The following hypothetical books are in proper shelf order, reading from left to right:

929.2 929.2 929.2 929.201
C12a C123 C25 B32a

In these examples, the 929.2 classification number places the numbers in the correct area of the library: within the 929.2 section. The bottom number assures proper shelf placement within the 929.2 section by using an alphabetic sequence and then a numeric sequence. Numbers that follow the decimal point and those that follow the letters in the Cutter number are decimals. Thus, 929.12 comes before 929.2; similarly, C123 comes before C25. Remember that call numbers are read in sequence from a lower number to a higher number.

Some libraries add variations to the Dewey system to fit their particular needs. The Family History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS church) in Salt Lake City, Utah, has modified the Cutter number to refer to record categories rather than authors’ names. For example, atlases of all regions carry the Cutter number E3, military service records M22, and cemetery records V22. The book Men of Boston and New England (Boston: Boston American, 1913) has the call number 974/D3m. The number 974 designates the U.S. region (northeast), D3 stands for biography, and m indicates the first letter of the title. For a complete analysis of the Family History Library’s record category designations, see chapter 5 in Norman E. Wright and David H. Pratt’s Genealogical Research Essentials (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1976).

Library of Congress Classification System

University libraries generally use the Library of Congress Classification System. That system differs from the Dewey system in its use of letters instead of numbers. The Library of Congress (LC) System contains twenty classes. Each of the twenty classes can be divided into a subclass when a second letter is added. As with the Dewey system, the LC system uses a Cutter number that usually identifies the author’s name and book’s title. Below, for example, is the LC call number for Forest W. McNair’s Forest McNair of Texas.

CT275 (classification for biography, individual American)
.M444 (Cutter for McNair as subject of biography)
A3 (second Cutter, meaning autobiography)

Reference works of interest to genealogists are found in the following LC categories: AE (encyclopedias), BX (religious encyclopedias), CR (heraldry), CS (genealogy), CT (biographical dictionaries), E (American gazetteers, chronologies, and biographical encyclopedias), F (American history), and G (atlases). LC-cataloged books are arranged alphabetically on the library shelf by the LC letter or letters.

As one begins to understand library methods and terminology, libraries become easier to use. The researcher will feel more comfortable in his own local library and in libraries that he might visit on a genealogical research trip. Remember that librarians and library assistants working in libraries or similar institutions are essential to helping unlock the many sources under their care. This chapter emphasizes sources that one should look for in the local library or in libraries that might be visited while on research trips. Reading a basic guide on library research will add to a researcher’s knowledge of libraries and their resources; the researcher will also be a step ahead the next time she enters a library.

Guidebooks to Library Research

Researchers interested in learning more about libraries and their resources can consult several excellent guides. One is Knowing Where to Look: The Ultimate Guide to Research (Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1984), by Lois Horowitz, a reference librarian who is familiar with the needs of genealogical researchers. In the introduction to her book (page 4), Horowitz notes:

If you’re a genealogist, historian, or scholar, you’re probably familiar with ships’ passenger lists and little-known manuscript collections. But think of the time you’ve spent in roundabout searches for a middle name. Genealogy requires some of the most sophisticated forms of research; yet, because it is known as a hobby, most people underestimate the research know-how required to reconstruct a family tree. Professional genealogists tell me that many family histories are riddled with errors, omissions, and inaccuracies. Armed with a basic knowledge of research techniques, yours needn’t be thus flawed.

Horowitz offers several important strategies for insuring research success. She suggests that researchers not judge a book by its cover because books often contain much more information than is indicated by their titles. For example, a book of deed abstracts might also contain wills that were found among the deeds.

Horowitz also believes that it is important to understand the arrangement of each reference book consulted. For example, surname indexes sometimes divide sections of a book. If one has not studied a book carefully and only checks in the back for an index, a valuable source of information could be overlooked. Horowitz offers additional suggestions for researchers, including these: do not believe everything in print; know when and how to ask for help; and, finally, become better organized in note-taking, citing sources, and copying information (1988, 62).

Finding Facts Fast by Alden Todd (Berkeley, Calif.: Ten Speed Press, 1992) offers a four-step plan for successful research. Reading about the subject to be studied and the sources available for research is the first step. (You have already taken that step by reading this chapter of this book.) Second, Todd suggests interviewing the expert or source person. Family members, neighbors, librarians, and professional genealogists fall into this category as source persons.

Third, observing for ourselves provides answers not normally found in written sources. Actually going to a cemetery or courthouse and looking at the records in person can provide answers to many genealogical puzzles. Traveling the migration routes of our ancestors and walking in the neighborhoods where they once lived enhances our understanding of their place in history. Finally, Todd suggests that reasoning in research should follow the known-to-the-unknown principle. This principle, preached by genealogy instructors for years, insures a steady progression of logical research (Todd 1972, 810).

Other books offer helpful tips on library research. A Guide to Library Research Methods (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), by Thomas Mann, a reference librarian at the Library of Congress, presents a detailed discussion of library subject headings. Subject headings are the access points used to find books on particular subjects. To find books on heraldry, for example, look in a card catalog or an online catalog under the term heraldry. Sometimes the heading assigned to a particular subject is not familiar to a researcher or does not seem to make sense. As in all disciplines, certain rules guide the assignment of subject headings to books. Mann’s guide assists in understanding these rules and offers suggestions for better utilizing library subject headings.

To find similar books on a subject, Mann suggests that a researcher locate a familiar book in a library’s online or card catalog; then note the subject headings used by the library to describe the book and consult those particular subject headings within the catalog for additional book titles. For example, suppose one has just finished reading the book Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, by David Hackett Fischer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), and wants to find the titles of similar books. Using a library’s online catalog, one can look alphabetically under the title Albion’s Seed and find the catalog entry for that book. The subject headings that describe Albion’s Seed are United States Civilization To 1783 and United States Civilization English Influences. By then looking in the catalog under these two subject headings one finds that the library has 198 other books under the subject United States - Civilization.

A valuable source for finding a wide assortment of subject headings used by libraries is Library of Congress Subject Headings (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1993). This four-volume set contains subject headings created by catalogers and used by the Library of Congress to catalog books since 1898. From five thousand to seven thousand new and replaced headings and subheadings are added each year. The see also references found in this set offer researchers additional terms to consider when searching for subject headings. The use of these references is important when determining the subject heading used for family surnames. “Crider family" is the subject heading “used for" (UF) the twelve variant spellings of that name. Note that a related topic (RT) to this surname is the surname Grider.

Learning to use library catalogs and numbering systems may seem confusing at first. However, with time and practice, most researchers find themselves at home in libraries and begin to discover the many new reference sources available to them.

Evaluating Reference Books

Before exploring the different types of printed reference sources available for use by genealogists, it is important to know how to evaluate reference books. Only regular, “hands-on use of a reference book will make a researcher thoroughly familiar with its quality and content. Following are several suggestions to help in a preliminary examination of a book. (Also see Evaluation of Printed Sources.)

First, examine the title page for information about the author, such as a degrees, positions, and titles of earlier works. A book’s cover (dust jacket) will often provide information about the author as well. Look further for information about the author in the introduction or in a special note. Also note the name of the publisher and date of publication.

Take a few minutes to browse through the book. Flip through the pages and note whether there is an index, bibliography, or appendix. Look at the photographs or illustrations and become familiar with the layout of the book. Next, read the preface and introduction to understand the purpose and scope of the book. Also notice any special features claimed and any limitations as well. Compare the book with other books on the same subject by consulting Books in Print.

Finally, examine the content of the book. Information should be quickly and easily extractable, meaning that the book should be well arranged, indexed, and cross-referenced. Is information found readily under logical subject, author, or title headings? Analyze the quality and kind of articles, noting whether they are popular or scientific, signed or unsigned, impartial or biased. Notice whether the article or book under study contains satisfactory bibliographical references. If the work purports to be a new edition, note carefully the extent of revision claimed for it and check by comparison with earlier editions. An important rule to remember when evaluating reference books is this one: don’t trust any one source completely. Become aware of recently published sources by reading book reviews. Additionally, confirm information from one source by verifying it in another.

Learning to evaluate reference sources helps researchers overcome the tendency to rely too heavily only on the sources available within the local library. No one library can possibly acquire all materials needed to research a family history. Researchers must learn to broaden their scope and look to other sources for information.

If the Library Doesn’t Have What One Needs

Librarians can suggest other libraries, institutions, associations, or governmental bodies that may offer additional or different types of sources. Several reference sources mentioned later in this chapter will lead the researcher to further sources of information. Interlibrary loan is an option to consider if one’s local library does not own a reference source one would like to consult.

Many reference resources are now available through the Internet, and most libraries now have access to the Internet and other forms of electronic searching. Ask a librarian for help accessing them via home computer or through the Internet connection at a local or university library. Be sure to ask if you have not found what you are seeking. Library technology is changing rapidly, and new sources appear daily, offering unique options for searching.

Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records


Publication Information:

Introduction - By Kory L. Meyerink

Origin of InformationCategories of Research Sources and ToolsEvaluation of Printed SourcesDocumentation and CopyrightLearning What Printed Sources ExistPublishers and DistributorsRepositories of Printed SourcesEffective Use of Libraries and Archives

Chapter 1: General Reference - Martha L. Henderson

Unique Resources in Public LibrariesDewey Decimal Classification SystemReference SourcesEncyclopediasGeneral History SourcesSocial History SourcesAlmanacs, Chronologies, and Statistical SourcesUsing DirectoriesLocal DirectoriesPrinted Professional DirectoriesInstitutional DirectoriesDirectories of Groups and AssociationsSource GuidesGeneral Language DictionariesHistorical and Etymological DictionariesSlang DictionariesSubject DictionariesSurname DictionariesGovernment DocumentsUsing BibliographiesElectronic SourcesReferences for Printed Sources: Chapter 1

Chapter 2: Instructional Materials - Sandra Hargreaves Luebking

Introduction to Instructional MattersHow-To Guides and Manuals for AdultsHow-to Guides and Manuals for Young PeopleGenealogy Technologies and Refinement of SkillsCourses and Programs of StudyPeriodical ArticlesIdentifying and Obtaining Instructional MaterialsEvaluating Instructional MaterialsSelecting Textbooks for Classroom UseThe Future of Instructional MaterialsReferences for Printed Sources: Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Introduction to Geographic ToolsIntroduction to Maps and GazettersMapping of a New NationRoutes to the WestCanals and WaterwaysRailroadsPolitical MapsNineteenth-Century MapsUSGS Topographic MapsOrdering Topographic Map Names and NumbersOrdering Topographic MapsDigital Topographic MapsOut-of-Print Topographic MapsFact Sheets and General Interest PublicationsOther Types of USGS MapsNineteenth-Century National GazetteersTwentieth-Century National GazetteersPostal Guides and Shipping GuidesMaps, Gazetteers, and the ComputerFinding Geographic ToolsUsing Geographic ToolsReferences for Printed Sources: Chapter 3

Chapter 4

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Chapter 5

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Chapter 6

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Chapter 7

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Chapter 8

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Chapter 9

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Chapter 10

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Chapter 11

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Chapter 12

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Chapter 13

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Chapter 14

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Chapter 15

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Chapter 16

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Chapter 17

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Chapter 18

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Chapter 19

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Chapter 20

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